Within the past decade or so, social media has positively exploded in popularity. The advent of this new and exciting way to communicate with one another represents a significant shift in the landscape of both technology as well as the way people think of communication in general. Much of this stems from the fact that social media simply makes connecting with others, especially connecting the world, much easier, and people have gradually been realizing this and flocking to social media in droves. However, to truly understand social media and its effects on communication as a whole, it is necessary to take a closer look at social media and examine some of its most prominent features, users, and implications on both technology and communication as a whole.
The first step to truly understanding social media is looking at the most basic definitions and aspects of social media. The most important aspect of social media here is that it is not simply limited to the largest and most obvious social media networks such as Facebook. Even smaller sites, or those that do not seem like social media sites, are, classified as such, including Wikipedia, Youtube, Instagram, and other sharing sites (Manovich, 2009). The key factor in regards to social media is that users create their own content, as seen prominently in Youtube and Wikipedia, which both allow users to add content to their heart's content (Manovich, 2009). Perhaps even more importantly, this created content almost always finds an audience, and, as is the current trend in social media, it is shared with other members of the social media network, creating a web for user-created content the likes of which have never been seen previously (Manovich, 2009). This emphasis on sharing within social media allows these social media outlets to both create the means and the end to those means, which leads to more and more users, hence the extreme popularity of social networks as a communication tool in the modern era.
Now that the definitions of social media have been established, it is necessary to examine some of the underlying statistics surrounding social media. For starters, the technology behind social media has already reached what many believe to be a maximum of saturation. That is to say, about 93 percent of adults and teenagers use the internet, and, of those, 72 percent use social media (Lenhart et al, 2010). Also, about two-thirds of 18-29-year-olds own a laptop, with 53 percent owning a desktop computer (Lenhart et al, 2010). Furthermore, blogs, which are essentially online personal journal entries, have captured about 14 percent of users, who use them regularly (Lenhart et al, 2010). The saturation of social media is absolute, and even adults, usually the holdout group for new and rising technologies, have been thoroughly saturated by social media. 47 percent of online adults use these social networking sites, up from 37 percent in just 2008 (Lenhart et al, 2010). These social networks, such as Facebook, comprise the majority of what is collectively referred to as social media, with about 73 percent of adults having Facebook profiles (Lenhart et al, 2010).
However, there are other, more niche social networks that are emerging that show promise in the constantly shifting world of social media. One of these is known as LinkedIn, which is a social network for business professionals and allows for users to network with other professionals, exchange advice, and manage their resume and portfolio, all through the social network. LinkedIn is becoming more and more popular, with about 14 percent of adults having a profile on LinkedIn. This helps to show the business side of social media, and how this "new media" is far more wide-reaching than the staples of social media such as Facebook. On the opposite side of the coin, Twitter, a social media network for keeping up with celebrities and other important figures via bite-sized posts, is also quickly growing (Lenhart et al, 2010). About 10 percent of teenagers using Twitter regularly (Lenhart et al, 2010). Twitter, which is far more popular among young teenagers, especially girls, represents another exciting niche of social media (Lenhart et al, 2010). The reason this segregation of user base in social media is so significant is that each of these segregated segments can, themselves, be just as popular as the giants such as Facebook simply by virtue of the very nature of how people within these social media networks communicate with one another. In short, it helps to demonstrate how a large audience is not entirely necessary when it comes to attracting as many people as possible, as simply having active, enthusiastic users within a social network is enough to keep the social network thriving.
Now that the numerous prospects and niches of social media have been established, it is now necessary to examine how these social media networks affect communication. Since the underlying concepts of communication differ from nation to nation (such as some nations not requiring as much communication with one another as others), it becomes necessary to look at communication as a simple exchange and how social media affects that. One article refers to the exchange of information in the communication process as an exchange of "...tokens that bear and carry meanings, communicate interest and count as personal and social transactions" (Manovich, 2009, p. 11). These token gestures, the article explains, function as a sort of common currency for personal and social transactions, such as conversations, internet chats, phone calls, or any other form of social interaction (Manovich, 2009). While these tokens are not, of course, unique to social media, one aspect of them that is unique is that they are "“accompanied by ambiguity of intent and motive (the token's meaning may be codified while the user's motive for using it may not). This can double up the meaning of interaction and communication, allowing the recipients of tokens to respond to the token or to the user behind its use" (Manovich, 2009, p.11). While not an entirely positive change here, since the article is essentially stating that it is more difficult to discern emotion over social media, the important aspect of this is that social media is, essentially, developing its brand of communication; one built upon impersonal yet rapid exchanges of information, or tokens, with one another.
The new forms of communication created by social media do not end there, however. Another important facet of social media is thanks to one site in particular: Youtube. Youtube allows users to upload and share videos, but, perhaps more importantly, it allows users to communicate with one another via video, a concept that has only really even existed in the past decade or so. These videos allow users of social media to communicate with each other in entirely new ways, since these videos can also be edited and spread around to as many people as possible, essentially making the possibilities for communication endless for the users. One article maintains that the changes that are being perpetuated by this new social media are more important than even once believed. This, the article states, is due to the changes in the inherent infrastructure of communication that have come about as a result of these social networks, such as direct, immediate responses to posts made by one another within the social media (Manovich, 2009). Even aspects of communication that are not generally revolutionized often, if at all, such as art, are undergoing a paradigm shift as social media shifts how art can be shared and communicated to others. For example, an artist can create a song and, within minutes of posting it on a social network, receive a large amount of feedback, allowing him or her to tweak the song to near-perfection in a matter of hours, simply by utilizing the social network effectively.
Thus, social media has developed and thrived on this foundation: the purpose of facilitating communication between people who might not have communicated with one another, because using social media puts less pressure on the communicators. Further evidence of this can be seen on the opposite side of the scale: intimacy. While not exclusive to romantic encounters and the like, one of the advantages of social media is that it disregards many of the social and characteristic norms that would have to be used in most other types of communication. Evidence of this can be observed most effectively in social media sites such as Twitter, which allow users to "follow" more important figures to receive updates on their life, giving them an intimate connection with them, without having to interact with them directly. This concept of intimacy is especially true for two primary groups: those who live very far away from one another, and young people. The latter is simply because of the large number of youths who utilize the internet in general, about 93 percent of youths use the internet, and this large percentage is bound to create intimacy with others (Lenhart et al, 2010). As for long-distance communication, social media functions even more effectively, as it allows for personal and intimate sharing of information with those close to the user in a way that no other form of communication would allow. An example of this might be sharing pictures of the two of them on the social network, allowing others to view and comment on the picture and reminisce about the events surrounding the picture. This focus on intimacy helps to make the communication aspects of social media more well-rounded, as this intimacy tends to be very personal, and one of the chief complaints about social media is that it is too robotic and impersonal, with users only putting up facades for one another.
In terms of tangible effects, perhaps one of the most profound consequences of the rise of social media as a marketing tool for business, especially for spreading information about a new product or service via word-of-mouth. Many businesses and their stakeholders have largely been accepting of social media because it represents fresh new business opportunities. For them, the concept of social media is simple: attention breeds more attention, and the more attention their business receives, the more traffic and thus, the more money they are bound to receive from it. This means that the concept of supply and demand: a basic economic principle, is one of the most important driving forces behind the growth of social media. This means that facilitating communication between users, and thus increasing both demand and profits, is a top priority from the perspective of the owners of these social media websites as well as the businesses that help drive them. However, this means that social media companies and businesses must, above all else, make their products accessible, both from a technological and economic perspective, and that means, loathe as they may be to do it, making their services free to use for most users. This shift in the methods of doing business is due solely to the advent of social media. From the perspective of these social media owners, then, it behooves them to facilitate easy communication among users, which also, luckily, furthers the advancement of social media as a tool for global communication, since it is continuing to be accessible.
One final yet critically important consequence of the growth of social media in the realm of communication is how the most important issues to the users of these social media are the ones that are read and, thus, shared more than others, which creates a unique ecosystem of communication within these social networks. One example of this can be observed in a study that examines several different movies released over the course of two years. The study found that, first of all, movie producers will directly pander to social media more than any other individual market because of this communication ecosystem within social media networks (Asur & Huberman, 2010). Furthermore, the same study found that "tweets," or posts within the micro-post sharing social network Twitter, were a telling indicator of the success of each movie, with some movies, such as Transylvania, with low numbers of tweets, performing markedly worse than other movies, such as Avatar, that were tweeted about much more, with Avatar being tweeted about 1212.8 times per hour (Asur & Huberman, 2010). The study then goes on to compare the tweet-based predictor of success (that is, that movies with more tweets written about them will earn more at the box office) with the Hollywood Stock Exchange, or HSX, model (Asur & Huberman, 2010). The HSX is something of a stock market, but only for movies, and the imaginary transactions that take place within are usually a telling indicator of how successful a movie will be (Asur & Huberman, 2010). However, the study found that the tweet-based predictor of success outperformed the HSX model by a fair margin (Asur & Huberman, 2010). Even more surprising, the tweet-based model was also able to predict the individual prices with the HSX index, which helps to put into perspective just how important "buzz" is to the success of commercial ventures, especially those that rely on reputation, word-of-mouth, and other social tools to succeed, such as movies (Asur & Huberman, 2010).
The result of all of this research is that social media is a booming market that is perhaps even more important and powerful than many give it credit for. Social media, as has been proven, represents what could be considered an entirely new way for users to communicate with one another, as well as for businesses to spread buzz and information about their products. Essentially, social media networks represent a huge step forward in the realm of communication for almost everybody. Much of this has to do with the fact that social media is simply so accessible that almost anyone can hop on and engage in these social media relatively easily and cheaply, requiring only a computer of some sort and internet connection. This accessibility, focus on the user, and limitless possibilities are what will keep social media at the forefront of communication technology for years, and possibly even decades, to come.
Asur, S., & Huberman, B. A. (2010, August). Predicting the future with social media. In Web Intelligence and Intelligent Agent Technology (WI-IAT), 2010 IEEE/WIC/ACM International Conference on (Vol. 1, pp. 492-499). IEEE. 492-499.
Manovich, L. (2009). The practice of everyday (media) life: From mass consumption to mass cultural production?. Critical Inquiry, 35(2), 319-331.
Lenhart, A., Purcell, K., Smith, A., & Zickuhr, K. (2010). Social Media & Mobile Internet Use among Teens and Young Adults. Millennials. Pew Internet & American Life Project. 1-15.